Sometimes it can take days for an opinion to form after watching a film. Sometimes scenes play over and over in your head to reveal there was greatness hiding beneath the surface. Other times a film can whirl around in your mind only to for all of the colour to wash out to reveal that there was little there in the first place. Just a damp pile of smelly clothes. Hyena (2014) most definitely held my attention, but left me with an urgent trip to the dry cleaners (!!!!!!).
Michael leads a small specialised unit of police, who specialise in being on the take. The film follows him piecing together the tatters of his criminal operation in the wake of a business deal coming to a bloody end. All the while he snorts and drinks his way in and out of sticky situations involving Albanian gangsters, internal affairs, and old feuds which threaten to close in on him.
This film starts off bluddy well: a small nut-cracking team of specialist police brutally storm a nightclub in a beautiful and violent steady shot, bathed in neon light, which is heightened by the equally brutal and swelling soundtrack (composed by the impossible to google Matt Johnson act, “The The”). Immediate comparison with Clockwork Orange comes to mind: violence and music combine with transcendent and stunning effect. It’s disappointing then as the film commences to shift between gears of 80s neon-powerhouse chic to gritty realism and back and forth.
Nuance does not appear to be the word of the day in the making of this film. Nothing wrong with that, but some of the scenes sit uncomfortably amongst the thumping visual aesthetic. The worst example of this is when a woman who is trafficked by Albanian gangsters is drugged and raped as a punishment for perceived associations with the police. The coked out filter is momentarily raised for a moment to achieve a startlingly realistic depiction of sexual violence. Realism may have been what Director Graham Johnson was looking for (he has spoken in interviews about his disdain for cartoon violence in films), but this scene smacks of gratuitousness. It does not serve to raise awareness or even fit in the tone or narrative of the film. Like the use of sound and lighting in Hyena, rape is rolled out purely for effect.
Director Graham Johnson has poo pooed any notion that Hyena is inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), which is silly, because, uh, it is and he knows it. The only difference is that Drive transcends the shallow visual aesthetic to achieve moments of great impact. Hyena never excels beyond its machismo spin on Refn’s look, and only uses its visual flair as a means to glue together a very ropey and disappointing genre flic.
People only seem to talk in this film to remind us that they are bloody hard men. If I was to be kind I would say that this is a study of the destructive power of masculinities run rampant, but an hour in the presence of this film proved otherwise. The self-destruction that permeates the film is aiming for the great narrative heights of tragedy, but it fails to hit the mark, because the multiple falls – whilst triggered by hubris and pride – are overwhelmingly the result of bad decisions and stupidity. Not so much a tragedy, more a STUPAGEDY (… stragupy… tragup-… strupadry?..)! There is absolutely no way that the characters in this film could organise a penis measuring contest, let alone head a vast criminal network of corruption. Even Michael, who is set up to be a peg higher than his mates, moves from one bad decision to another purely for the purpose of setting up some nice atmospheric shots: watching a car burn in an empty field under the watch of distant city lights, or charging through more neon light locations.
The cast is an excellent gathering of some of the UK’s best film actors: Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Richard Dormer, and the excellent Peter Ferdinando, whose performance as a frantic but clinical man of corrupt enterprise is the most consistent element in the film. There is a real star like quality to him that is somehow likable despite his heinous behavior. Like a good genre film should, Ferdinando presents a man that we can route for. But like the hieghtened visuals of Hyena, the character of Michael is maxed out long before the films end. The third act sees Michael stumble from one impossible situation to another brimming with show downs and breakdowns. The film’s ending is symptomatic Hyena’s attempt to rally against cliche: an anticlimatic compromise which denies genre expectation for its own sake. And by the end of this film the audience definitely deserves a pay-off.